Activist Kayla Gore is building tiny homes—and trans futures—in Memphis, Tennessee

Activist Kayla Gore is building tiny homes—and trans futures—in Memphis, Tennessee

June 8, 2021

Kayla Gore moved around a lot as a kid, which as many coming-of-age films will tell you, can make it difficult to make friends.

"Middle school was treacherous," she says, describing bullying and in one instance, a student throwing a desk at her head. "But my mom bought a house when I was in middle school so we were more rooted. We weren't moving around. I wasn't changing schools and so I was able to build a bigger, better support system in middle school, going into high school. And so things were a lot better in high school."

Today, Gore is the co-founder and executive director of My Sistah's House, a Memphis-based organization founded to help bridge the gap in services for trans and queer people of color, with an emphasis on providing stable housing. She says they have raised roughly $600,000 — including over $335,000 through a GoFundMe to build homes for trans women. 

"The economics for trans folks is not where it should be. There is not equity in employment. There is not equity in the home, leasing or renting process," Gore tells CNBC Make It. "We want to help solve all of that."

According to a report by the National LGBTQ Task Force, 41% of Black trans people have experienced homelessness (more than five times the rate of the general U.S. population). Gore, a Black trans woman and the southern regional organizer at the Transgender Law Center, says she has as well. 

"I was living in Phoenix, Arizona and I had a roommate who put me out at two o'clock in the morning. I ended up sleeping in Margaret T. Hance Park that night and that's where I first experienced being homeless. I used to climb on top of the bathrooms in the park because it was a little safer," she says. "But real safety means affirming housing, not just, 'I have my room.' Because what happens when someone's having a bad day, your name's not on the lease, and you have to leave? That puts people at risk."

Gore explains that for trans people, housing can be a matter of life and death. More trans people were reported killed in 2020 than in any year on record. A majority were Black trans women.

"We've had community members who have been asked to leave their lease early because of their neighbors not wanting a trans person living around their children. That's a major, major issue here," she says. "And a lot of the murders that have happened with Black trans people nationally, have been with intimate partners, people that they know, that they're familiar with. And so we see people staying in housing situations because they don't have anywhere else to go, and that can put your life in danger."

She adds that employment discrimination can exacerbate the issue of securing stable housing for trans people and, in her experience, created an environment where she felt she needed to participate in sex work to survive.

"Despite the federal protections, Tennessee is an 'at will' state which means, you can be fired for any reason or no reason, there doesn't have to be a reason that you're fired," Gore says, mentioning instances she has seen trans people fired seemingly out of the blue. "Speaking from my own personal experience, I came out of sex work because I found stable employment that I enjoy. It supplemented my income and it allowed me to be more selective of people that I would call a client at that time. That was harm reduction. And once I was able to get full time employment with benefits, and an actual fair, livable wage, I was able to not do sex work anymore."

That job gave her the stability she needed to buy a home of her own and to build a safer life for herself. 

"I wasn't making a lot. I was making maybe $27,000," she says. "But I made enough to actually qualify for a loan to buy a house. That's what having a stable income means for trans folks. It's that we are able to access the homebuyer process, that we are able to purchase or lease a car because we have verifiable income. It means that we can be safer and more selective with who we share space and time with." 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Memphis, Gore quickly saw that her local community needed help. 

"We had a lot of people who needed housing during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They were losing their jobs. They were facing housing insecurity because they couldn't pay rent," she says. "And not everybody's in a legal lease. For instance, a lot of trans folks here in Memphis may be staying at a hotel, or at a rooming house, or with friends or family, and there's no legal protections for that. So yeah, there was an eviction moratorium in place, but that doesn't protect people who are living in certain housing situations."

To address these needs, Gore first investigated if she could convert sheds in the backyard of My Sistah's House into temporary tiny homes for those in need of emergency housing, but found there was no way to legally build the homes to code on the land. Instead, the organization set out to buy land and build a community of small homes. 

Gore took to fundraising online. The fundraiser took off when musician Noname shared the fundraiser on Twitter. She says they fundraised nearly $100,000 that day alone. 

The organization now owns three lots of land and one tiny home has been fully completed. Two more tiny homes are currently under construction and there are plans for many more. The homes will be given away to trans women of color in need of housing. 

According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, an estimated 40% of trans adults have attempted suicide, nearly nine times the national attempted suicide rate.

Gore believes that for trans people, homeownership has the opportunity to create a much needed sense of stability.

"When you have a home of your own, people can actually plan for the future, rather than just surviving in temporary housing," she says. 

But as states continue to push anti-trans legislation that impacts children's bathrooms and sports opportunities, many are increasingly concerned about the mental health of trans youth. According to The Trevor Project's 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

Gore hopes that in building homes for trans women, her organization can help trans kids envision a future of themselves as adults. 

"The scenario our parents often instill in us is that you grow up, you finish school, you meet someone, you get married, you buy a house, and then you have a kid or children, and you have your future in that house with the picket fence," she says. "That's the norm. And for trans people, that's not the norm. We're trying to create that norm of home ownership, because that promotes stability." 

"And it allows people to be able to plan for years to come."

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